At the end of November, I came to the conclusion that I would save weight in my pack if I were to exclusively carry two-ounce Aquamira purification drops for my water. I know that, since Aquamira is chlorine-based, it leaves the water with a chemical taste, but I figured the benefits outweighed the costs. Water filters can easily weigh a half a pound or more, and the SteriPen (UV light purifier) weighs about
1.5 pounds 3.6 ounces (revised 2/13. Apologize for the mistake). Being mechanical in nature, either of these options has the real potential to fail, which means I would have to bring Aquamira as a backup anyway.
Then in January, I was emailing with Patrice at Bears Den Trail Center (as I mentioned last week), and she gave me some tips on how to keep pack weight down. One thing she said is that she and her husband “cameled up” at a water source, meaning that they drank plenty of water at a stream crossing, and then they didn’t have to carry as much water on them.
After thinking about it for five seconds, I realized the value in this approach. If I were well hydrated and only had to carry one liter of water instead of two (or two instead of three), I’d save 2.2 pounds in weight. However, Aquamira takes 35 minutes to become effective, so it wouldn’t be a practical tool for “cameling up.” A filter, on the other hand, requires only as much time as it takes to pump the water through in order to be effective. Even if I used a water filter that weighed a pound, I’d still save over a pound in pack weight.
At this point, I decided to do some research into water filters available on the market. Not only was I disappointed at the heavy pump filters I found, but I was also not happy about the $75+ price tags, especially considering that the filters had to be replaced every so often at quite an expense.
Well, a few days later, I was looking around the 2013 A.T. Thru-Hiker Facebook page and saw someone ask for opinions on the LifeStraw portable water filter. Curious, I searched for the product and found it on Amazon. I was completely shocked when I saw that, with 67 customer reviews of the product, 57 people had given it five stars and seven people had given it four stars.
I look to Amazon all the time, and that’s the first time I’ve ever seen such an overwhelmingly positive response to a product. And the comments were extensive and varied. Some people had used the product on camping trips, in developing nations, for their emergency/disaster kits. People used it to drink clean water out of streams or muddy puddles, and a couple even successfully filtered their own urine in desperate life-threatening situations.
OK, now that I’ve piqued your interest, let me give you the details. The LifeStraw is a personal water filter that only weighs 2 ounces and can filter up to 1,000 liters (264 gallons) of water before its value is expended. The kicker is that it costs a whopping $20-25.
It quite literally looks like a large straw made of hard plastic, 9 inches in length and an inch in diameter (about the size of a quarter) with a cap on the larger end that reveals the base of a series of filters when removed and a small capped mouthpiece on the other end.
The filter does not have any heavy pumps; instead it filters water as the user sucks water through the straw. The user knows that the filter is spent because it simply stops working, so there is no risk of drinking contaminated water.
The LifeStraw reduces turbidity (particles in the water…mud, gunk, debris…) down to .2 microns and surpasses EPA guidelines for E. coli, Giardia, and Cryptosporidium oocysts, among other bacteria and parasites. For reference, I checked other filters: some filter to .2 microns, while others filter to .3 microns. The LifeStraw removes 99.9999% of waterborne bacteria and 99.9% of waterborne protozoan parasites. The only things it does not remove are waterborne viruses (which are uncommon problems in the U.S.) and chemicals (think farm runoff upstream).
The LifeStraw was originally developed by the Swiss company Vestergaard Frandsen, which specializes in manufacturing public health tools for people in developing countries. The product has won many awards including the 2008 Saatchi & Saatchi Award for World Changing Ideas, the ‘INDEX: 2005’ International Design Award, and “Best Invention of 2005” by Time Magazine.
The product only became available in the U.S. and Canada a little over a year ago when Eartheasy (at http://www.eartheasy.com) became the sole wholesale distributor. I was so excited about the potential for the LifeStraw that I sent a note to Eartheasy asking if they would be willing to provide me a sample and also immediately began looking to find the nearest retailer to me that sells it so that I could get a visual and touch it (…it’s pretty far. Over an hour away).
FYI, check out the following link for retailers – both online and brick and mortar – where you can buy the LifeStraw.
Luckily for me, someone from Eartheasy responded within a day and graciously agreed to send me a LifeStraw to review.
The package arrived a few days later, and I was interested to see that it came in a hermetically sealed bag, which is reminiscent of medical grade supplies. I thought that this was a good sign as it shows how seriously the manufacturer takes the sterility of the filter.
After cutting the bag open with scissors, I took a sip of tap water just to confirm taste. I then attempted to suck it through the LifeStraw. As I was warned, with the first attempt it took about 10 seconds until I actually got a sip of water (apparently this is because the filter is really dry at first and needs to be “primed”), after which the experience (i.e. the flow of the water through the filter) was like drinking water through a normal straw. It did have a slight plastic taste, like that of a new water bottle, but it was subtle.
When I was done, I pushed the lingering water out of the filter by blowing air into the Straw. I then left both caps open, as recommended, to dry out and reduce chance of bacteria growth (or internal freezing of leftover water in cold temperatures). I considered this a successful first attempt and set it aside.
When I tried again the next day, I decided to really go hog wild. I took some dirt from a nearby garden bed (yes, I’m guessing it had fertilizer in it…it was just a small experiment; I’m not poisoned) and mixed it in with water to get a muddy messy.
I sucked water through the Straw, and this time it took longer to get water, obviously because debris was in the way of the intake valve. Ultimately, though, I succeeded, and it tasted perfectly “normal.” I spit some of the water out into a glass to give you an idea.
FYI, this was pretty dumb of me. I ended up having to rinse the LifeStraw a few times in fresh water to get rid of all of the built-up debris. In reality, on the A.T. I doubt I’ll come across water this “chunky,” and if I do, I’ll do a preliminary filter with a bandanna first.
I’m pretty friggin’ excited by this product.
That being said, I see a few limitations. First, it really is only for drinking. If I want to have cooking and/or cleaning water for the evenings, it will not be useful. As far as cooking, I’m not really concerned since, according to EPA standards, boiling water for 1 minute will kill off any parasites or bacteria that may be lingering.
As far as cleaning, assuming I actually use water (instead of wipes), I might prefer to put a few drops of Aquamira in a canteen of water. If instead I use wipes and only need water to brush my teeth, then I could always drink water through the LifeStraw (for gargling/rinsing).
Second, with its one-inch-wide diameter, the LifeStraw would require a wide mouth water bottle. I plan to re-use disposable plastic bottles and will have to have the presence of mind to always bring Gatorade bottles since the mouth on them is wider. No big deal.
The last potential limitation I foresaw is mixing powdered beverages like Gatorade with water and drinking with the LifeStraw. I assumed that the LifeStraw would filter out the beverage mix, defeating the point.
Well, I decided to try it for kicks and giggles. I mixed a scoop of powder into 16 ounces of water and tasted. Gatorade, yep, tasted like Gatorade. I then tried it through the filter and, hm, it tasted like Gatorade too.
This led me down a rabbit hole, a big one. I first looked up the ingredients in Gatorade. Then, having reasoned that the particles in Gatorade are smaller than the filter can block, I decided to look up the size (in microns…since the LifeStraw filters to .2 microns) of the separate ingredients. I couldn’t find info across the board, but I did discover that salt particles are .035-.05 microns large (small?) and that sugars are 0.0008 – 0.005 microns in size, both much smaller than the filter’s limit.
That probably accounts for why I could taste the Gatorade through the Straw. That being said, I don’t know if all of the ingredients including B vitamins, gum arabic, monopotassium phosphate, etc. made it through. (If there’s a chemist out there or someone who can find better data, please let me know!) If I’m just looking for flavor (which I usually won’t be because I like water), it’s no problem. On the other hand, if I really need to replenish lost electrolytes and I’m not messing around, I’m guessing I’ll use the Aquamira drops and then add Gatorade once purified.
Despite these limitations, the LifeStraw really has the potential to meet my needs. I’m only looking for an “instant water” option for when I get thirsty and/or want to hydrate well at water sources. If it takes 10 seconds each time to “prime” the filter before I have many minutes of drinking time, I really don’t mind. (And the “priming” time may be a temporary phenomenon anyway.) After all, the Aquamira takes 2,100 seconds to make water drinkable.
I’m still completely in shock that the LifeStraw, with its 1,000 liter filtering life costs only $20-25 retail. And for an extra two ounces, I’ll have the chance to carry less water and significantly lighten my load. I’m surprised that I haven’t heard more about this product among thru-hikers. I’m guessing the reason is that they’re still pretty new to the U.S. and Canadian markets.
Either way, I’m excited that I stumbled upon it and can’t wait to see how it holds up on the trail. And hopefully I won’t come across too many shallow muddy bogs, but if/when I do, I think I’ll be good to go.